‘Downton Abbey’ Britain: Living with the Ghosts of an Imagined Past

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 18th 2019

‘Downton Abbey’: The Movie opened last weekend in the UK. It came at the end of a tumultuous week with the UK Parliament suspended, the UK government found to have acted unlawfully, and the Prime Minister accused of having misled the Queen.

This isn’t how Britain is meant to behave, and certainly not as portrayed in the cinematic version offered in ‘Downton Abbey’ and other period dramas. The popularity of such productions says something about the state of modern day Britain, and how it is represented and portrayed. This selective, mythologised version of the past is also increasingly framing the present – and our future.

The ‘Downton Abbey’ film is situated in 1927, one year after the General Strike and – despite the nods at division and turbulence such as trouble in the North of England, Communists, Ireland and republicanism, as well as wider anti-monarchial views – presents an England where class, hierarchy and order are defining values.

This depiction of society in is entertaining and fun; it isn’t an accident that the brand has been such a success, and the film has as the series did a wonderful range of characters and vignettes from Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham to Maggie Smith stealing the film as the Dowager, the Countess of Grantham. But for all that ‘Downton’ speaks to a deep and worrying sentiment in the present day. The cultural commentator Stuart Jeffries noted how it fits ‘into the reactionary Keep Calm and Carry On ethos that has permeated austerity Britain … urging political quietism on those suffering most.’

Julian Fellowes, the creator of the television series that the film builds on, explained its appeal: ‘Most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand’. But that is only a tiny element of the appeal for ‘Downton’ is about characters and relationships rooted in class, hierarchy and ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Period drama has been about for a long time, but its meaning and location in culture and society has changed. Increasingly, it has become something that presents one of the last dominant stories of what Britain is – with the added potency of being a picturesque version that can be sold to the US and other overseas markets. The ‘New York Times’ wrote that ‘Downton’ offered ‘a bit of Britain where the sun still never sets’.

The British are coming’

A critical moment in this evolution was the making of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’ into an eleven part primetime ITV series in 1981 starring Jeremy Irons. Its opening words voiced by Irons evoked a certain kind of Englishness – ‘Oxford in those days was still a city of aquatint. When the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over the gables and cupolas, she exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth.’

This production came the same year as David Puttnam and Hugh Hudson’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ about Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams running and winning at the 1924 Olympics. The film had a memorable Vangelis theme tune, won an Oscar for Best Film, bringing forth screenwriter Colin Welland’s clarion call – ‘the British are coming’ – in his Oscars acceptance speech – which was played and replayed by British media as a sign that the British had something special in their stories of the past that American audiences desired.

This was the point in the early 1980s when the heritage industry, the rebranding of the English countryside, and the commodification of the past, went into overdrive. Connected to this was the rise of the politics of Thatcherism, a new form of Toryism which was much more abrasive, harsh and partisan, and which set about tearing up the intricate social contracts which had defined the post-war age.

Add to this mix the growing obsession with the Second World War – but often a fictionalised, simplified version, rather than the complex real thing – which became a cultural and political phenomenon from the 1980s on as the distance from the conflict grew bigger and direct memories of it faded.

Over the past forty years, we have seen the gathering folklore of 1940, ‘our finest hour’, the Winston Churchill industry, from adherents to decriers. As well as this there is Labour’s counter-story about the above period – of Clement Attlee and his role running the domestic front in 1940-45, his role as Deputy Prime Minister from 1942-45, and the road to 1945 and Labour’s landslide.

The past is alive and kicking in present day Britain. It can be seen in the remarks of TV property developer Kirstie Allsopp (in response to the public marking of a royal birth) ‘What is wrong with Britain being a Disneyland?’ The comment is a revealing one, reducing Britain to the idea of a playground for visitors getting pleasure out of what has traditionally defined Britain. Such an attitude is part and parcel of infantilising the people of Britain and making us feel we not citizens in our own country.

Then there is the example of Tory MP, Brexit rebel and now Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose whole world view is based on a romanticised past. He has even done us the service of putting this into book form: ‘The Victorians: Twelve Titans who forged Britain’, made up of eleven men and Queen Victoria. Mogg tells us the Victorian era was marked by ‘moral certainty’, ‘wise confidence’, ‘tremendous energy’ and ‘patriotism’; this is all posed in contrast to the horrors of the ‘moral relativism’ of ‘the present-day politically correct elite’.

Remember the Dunkirk Spirit

All of this is sadly related to the debacle that Brexit has unfolded into and which have aided the chief protagonists and apologists. Brexit has increasingly entailed the use of wartime language and examples, most often on behalf of ardent Leave supporters, but not exclusively. Thus, we see statements inferring that this is about dear old Blighty standing firm against those dodgy Europeans who are susceptible to wars, foreign conquest and dictatorship.

Hence, as the Brexit blunderbuss has tumbled to an as yet unknown messy conclusion, the wartime references have become more and more acute. We have seen the difficulties of No Deal Brexit dismissed by some of the most passionate Leavers with arguments about how we made it through the war.

Thus, we get numerous interventions such as: ‘There were dark years in 1940 & times when it could have gone against Britain. But our spirit and resolve stood strong. This is as difficult’. Or: ‘In the spirit of Dunkirk, we can ask ourselves, ‘What can I do with my little boat?’ ‘Where and how do I pitch in?’’; ‘We managed to arrange the evacuation of 100,000’s troops from a beach in France … but we can’t fill in a few new form[s]’. Then there was Tory MP Mark Francois threatening some D-Day reenactment on the Germans because of comments from Airbus, which culminated in Nigel Farage backer Arron Banks declaring about Britain ‘WE are not European’.

The rise of ‘Downton’ and assorted dramas, along with the suffocating power of World War Two stories, says something really profound about the present. It reveals something about the collective stories we tell each other as a society, about our hopes, fears and dreams for the future. And it says very powerfully that Britain’s best days are behind us. Worse than that it says that the only future we have to look forward to is found in our past.

Alarmingly, this is not even an accurate version of our past, but an imagined, reactionary, deeply dishonest one. A past which says let’s go back to the good old days, when everything was simpler, more ordered, and people knew their place. This is a land which was much more defined harshly in class, gender and the workplace, which was much whiter, and had much less immigration and not had to confront issues of identity and multiculturalism, as we have today. And of course, it is a world before Empire came home with Windrush and the ‘hostile environment’: an age where Britain felt it ruled the waves and could tell troublesome foreigners what to do.

This is a world where the ruling class are not the incompetent, dimwitted, deceitful privileged group of today, but instead supposedly understand a sense of obligation, rights and duties which comes with the age of what was called ‘gentlemanly capitalism’.

This is back to the future Britain. Restoration Britain. It says that we cannot sum up the courage and imagination to change this shoddy state of affairs – one where politics has become reduced to the Tory psychodrama between David Cameron and Boris Johnson which began in their youth and has carried forth into their political careers at our great cost. This is a country in which Cameron represents the 19th UK PM (of 55) educated at Eton, with Johnson the 20th.

This version of Britain is in its past and present a story about England. It is one in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are missing, at worst patronised, and their democratic voices and majorities consistently ignored. This after all is the dynamic of Brexit: the triumph of a reactionary, intolerant Englishness, at odds with so much that is progressive and generous about that country.

We cannot go on living in the shadows and alongside the ghosts of the past. We have to come up with different stories of British history, the voices of working people and their struggles, the campaigns for greater democracy, equality and against Empire and imperialism. But that also means that English radicals have to start speaking about England and not leaving it to the ideals of a reactionary ‘Disneyland’ and what Patrick Wright called in his book on the misuses of the past, ‘On Living in an Old Country’, ‘deep England’, the self-understanding of the upper classes claiming to speak for everyday life.

Whatever the political future of the nations and peoples of these isles, England will be one of the keys. The reactionary hogwash which fills so much of public life has to be challenged, and so does the silence of Labour and those on the left which has cost all of us dear and for which we have all paid, and will continue paying, a severe price.